By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Does the Bible teach that social meals are apart of congregational fellowship?
Reply: Meals, recreation and entertainment provided by the local church in the name of “fellowship” are a common practice in liberal churches. Before me is a bulletin in which the statement appears: “At least once per quarter we want to have a congregational fellowship, consisting of sandwiches, salads, snacks, etc. – ‘finger food.’ The first will be after the evening services.”
First, a word about the church building is in order. Eating in the church building is not wrong per se. The building itself is not sacred, but rather the place where the church meets. God’s people compose the church (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1: 18; 1 Pet. 2:5). So, whether it is right or wrong to eat in the church building is not the issue. The issue is: do the Scriptures authorize the church (a congregation) to provide social functions – meals, recreation and entertainment?
Individual members of the church are authorized to perform and participate in activities which the church is not authorized to do. The failure to make this distinction is responsible for many congregations engaging in unscriptural practices. The individual sustains relationships in various realms. As a member of the church, the family of God, he sustains a spiritual relationship to that body (Eph. 2:19,20; 3:21; 4:1-16; 1 Pet. 2:5). He, at the same time, sustains a relationship to the community. This is a social relationship which justifies his participation in community projects that are right, and supporting them financially. He can contribute to worthwhile endeavors (cancer research, cerebral palsy funds, school activities, etc.). The church, on the other hand, is not authorized by the Scriptures to promote or engage in such activities. The individual sustains an economic relationship. This involves the operation of a private business, a school or being employed in order to provide a living for himself and his family or the home (1 Pet. 3:1-7; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:18-21). And, the individual sustains a relationship to civil government (Rom 13:1-8; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Obviously, there are individual obligations which are not the enterprises of the church. The church is spiritual; thus, its work is spiritual. Its primary work is to preach the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1 Tim. 3:14,15). It is not the business of the church to provide social functions for its members.
The word “fellowship” as it is used in the New Testament, is greatly misunderstood; and this misunderstanding is also responsible for many churches of Christ building “fellowship” halls and providing “fellowship” meals. The word “fellowship” in the New Testament is translated from three Greek nouns (koinonia, metoche, and koinonos) and two Greek verbs (koinoneo and sunkoinoneo). They convey the meaning of “communion, sharing in common, joint participation, contribution, partnership, to partake with others.” The conclusion is reached by some, that since “fellowship” is joint participation, it follows that the church is providing “fellowship” when it sponsors social activities which involve eating, recreation and entertainment. What many fail to see is that fellowship is joint-participation, but not all joint participation is fellowship. Jesus ate with the publicans and sinners (Mk. 2:16), but He did not fellowship them. Paul wrote: “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). But, if all joint participation is fellowship, then Christians are not allowed to engage in sports activities with sinners; they cannot play games with sinners nor can they eat with them. To do so would be to fellowship them, if this contention is correct that all joint participation is fellowship.
The “fellowship” that Christians have is being in relationship with Christ. It is a spiritual relationship – a spiritual “fellowship” (Acts 2:42; 1 Jn. 1:7); it is not obtained by eating and drinking “fellowship” meals. Nowhere do the Scriptures authorize the church to provide that kind of fellowship. If the church can provide such joint participation as meals in the name of “fellowship,” then why cannot the church provide other activities of “fellowship,” such as fishing parties, skating parties, games and anything else that involves joint participation? If not, why not? The pathetic fact is that there are churches doing those very things. If the church can provide “fellowship” meals, it can provide these other things. There is no stopping place there are “no holds barred.” Bible fellowship involves a spiritual tie (2 Cor. 6:14). This means that Christians cannot be yoked with sinners in a spiritual or religious sense. For this reason gospel preachers are not to be members of ministerial alliances and Christians are not to be members of religious lodges and other religious bodies than the Lord’s church. Joint participation in them would be fellowship with them.
The work of the church is threefold: it is to preach the gospel, edify the saints and provide such necessities as food and shelter for those needy saints for whom it is responsible. The Scriptures do not authorize the church to engage in any other work. “Fellowship” halls do not fall into this work; they are for the purpose of eating and drinking; therefore churches are not authorized by the word of God to provide them. “Fellowship” meals to be provided by the church are the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:23-34) and spiritual food – the word of God (see Jn. 6). They are not social meals.
If Bible fellowship consists in eating and drinking, would it not be just as wrong for a member of the church to miss a “fellowship” dinner as it would be to miss the services on Sunday night or Wednesday night? Many think of “fellowship” when they smell the food cooking and the coffee brewing in the church kitchen. And, if fellowship is made possible by eating and drinking, then brethren separated by great distance of miles could not be in fellowship with their brethren, if fellowship is social meals. In the spiritual realm of fellowship, however, all Christians who are “walking in the light” are in fellowship with God and each other, regardless of where they are (1 Jn. 1:7). It is sad that so many brethren miss the whole point of fellowship.
Other considerations could be given to this matter. The question is not where a “fellowship” meal is eaten. Church sponsored meals are without scriptural authority whether they are eaten in a church building, a school house or out under a tree.
The Bible does not teach that social meals are a part of congregational fellowship. They involve the individual, not
Guardian of Truth XXX: 3, pp. 69-70
February 6, 1986